Guest Blog by Millicent Ondigo for Amref Health Africa.
It began one and a half years ago with the birth of the ‘Yes I Do Alliance-Kenya Programme’. Comprising five Kenya-based Non-Governmental Organizations – namely Amref Health Africa in Kenya, PLAN International, Network of Adolescents and Youths of Africa (NAYA), Centre for the Study of Adolescents (CSA) and Ujamaa Africa, the Yes I Do Alliance had one purpose of contributing to the reduction of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), child marriage and teenage pregnancies among the Maa community residing in Kajiado West Sub County of Kajiado in Kenya.
Before implementation of the project began, Netherlands-based Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) conducted a baseline survey to ascertain the need for the project in the area. Realizing that the three issues required a multi-sectoral, all-inclusive approach, Amref Health Africa in Kenya and NAYA were tasked to reach out to adults and young people out -of -school whereas PLAN International, CSA and Ujamaa Africa focus on reaching the in-school community
Engaging the Kajiado County leadership, the project team was directed to Kajiado West which at that time had the worst health indicators, including FGM/C, child marriage and teenage pregnancies, in the county. The teams commenced their work and did a grand community entry after a successful stakeholder mapping. It did not take long before the project implementing team realized the vastness of the area of coverage and decided to focus on seven locations, Najile being one of them.
Implementation employed different strategies including the World Starts With Me programme in selected schools by CSA, survival tactics against sexual violence by Ujamaa Africa, engaging communities through dialogue with young people who are out- of-school fraternity, youth-led activities and evidence-based advocacy with County policy makers by Amref Health Africa and NAYA. PLAN international identified beneficiaries for school scholarship for those in need, and helped build the capacity of the most disadvantaged families through economic empowerment.
Chief Beatrice Kosiom of Najile togetehr with some of the girls who gradiated through the Amref Alternative Rite of Passage in Najile.
As a start, a team of local project change agents from each of the seven locations was trained as Trainer of Trainers to facilitate the process of community dialogue. These included teachers, religious leaders, the administrators, including Nyumba Kumi (Community village elders), young people, men and women who had the capacity to champion the agenda of the Yes I Do Alliance within the selected communities. Several forums were held throughout the project life that saw the communities of Najile and Torosei challenge themselves to rise to the occasion of affirming their new stand through an alternative to FGM/C during the long school holiday season in December. Najile, in particular, insisted that they should undertake an Alternative Rite of Passage for their girls as soon as they closed schools citing fear of giving the parents ample time for planning and executing female circumcision upon their daughters once schools were closed. ‘If we wait any longer after children close school, our effort will be in vain. Let us plan to bring our daughters together and give them information on why they should not accept to be cut,’ remarked Chief Beatrice Kosiom during one of the community dialogue forums. Amref Health Africa then introduced the community-led Alternative Rites of Passage concept.
Discussions ensued on how to go about undertaking an Alternative Rite of Passage within the area as it was a new concept. Given the limited time before school closure, anti-FGM/C, child marriage and teenage pregnancy steering teams were established in the different sites. These teams comprised of all individuals trained by the five implementing organizations during the project period, such as teachers, religious leaders, administrators, police, cultural elders, reformed female circumcisers, Civil Society Organization reps, health care providers and representatives of young people, youth advocates. The anti-FGM/C, child marriage and teenage pregnancy steering team for Najile, under the leadership of Lady Chief Beatrice, decided to take the bull by the horns and after several planning meetings an Alternative Rites of Passage in Najile was inevitable.
The faith based Community Led Alternative Rites of Passage for the girls was held in Najile Primary, a school in Kajiado West Sub County. The Presbyterian Outreach Mission Church (POMC) prominent in the area steered other churches including Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) and Kenya Assemblies of God (KAG) into the denunciation of FGM, CM and TP in Najile. Also in attendance and support were government departmental officers, Sub County administrators, the Assistant County Commissioner, the Area School Curriculum Support Officer, teachers, religious leaders from several churches in the area, the health care provider (Ministry of Health) and a long serving NGO in the area, Compassion International. All the planning and execution of the Alternative Rite of Passage was orchestrated by the Lady Chief Beatrice Kosiom, supported by a team of the aforementioned 35 stakeholders. The community not only mobilized their daughters and members to attend the training and ceremony but also provided in kind contributions towards the celebrations. They sourced for the venue, supplied firewood for cooking for the children, ensured adequate supply of water and labour, sourced for the Guest of Honour, someone the community could identify with and coordinated the entire Alternative Rites of Passage process.
A total of 170 girls denounced FGM/C and Child, Early and Forced Marriages (CEFM) on November 24, 2017 as 172 boys boldly affirmed their stand with the girls in their denunciation of the practices. The above action was preceded by a two day reorientation on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and the effects of FGM/C and child marriage having been taken through the same either in school or out-of-school by the other Yes I Do Alliance partners. The topics covered: the Maa community values; challenges faced by Maa women and girls; understanding my body, sex and outcomes of early sex; life skills; children rights; FGM/C and Alternative Rites of Passage.
Traditionally, girls go through a seclusion period where Maa traditional values are instilled in them as they transition into adulthood. In this case, the importance of education was underscored to the girls whose ages ranged between 8 and 12 years. On the eve of the Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP) ceremony a colourful ‘Candle Night Out’ event dubbed ‘Miss ARP Najile Beauty Pageant’ was held where Jackline Nairesie, a form 2 student at Moi Girls Isinya aspiring to be a lawyer, emerged the winner. The Candle Night Out event works to restore confidence and self-esteem to the girls who, for a long time, have not had a voice within their community. The girls choose who among them gets to represent their village during the evening ‘cat walk’ which not only seeks to get the best in terms of appearance but also one adorning the best Maa attire including bracelets, anklets, Maa dress, Maa headgear, necklaces and belt. She must also have high intellect to easily understand and articulate the Alternative Rites of Passage concept coupled with a dream to bring change to her community. A team of 12 girls lined up for the ‘Miss ARP Najile Beauty Contest’ on the 23rd night and the top three got gifted with school accessories charging them to achieve their full schooling potential. Jackline Nairesie, now a role model, has the task of championing her peers to become women of their dreams without the cut in Najile for at least one year.
During the Alternative Rites of Passage ceremony, a reformed female circumciser testified how she decided to change after almost losing her daughter while performing FGM/C on her. The Assistant County Commissioner, Mr Elijah Chiwe said “I take this opportunity to thank Amref Health Africa as our stakeholder in the fight against FGM/C. We the community of Najile need to abide by the law and restrain from promoting harmful cultural practices in our community and country at large. I urge religious leaders and parents to continue supporting their children as the government has made education free for all children.”
Mr Simpiri the Curriculum Support Officer, in charge of Ewuaso and Mosiro wards reiterated the ACCs sentiments: “I want to thank Amref Health Africa, the POMC church and the community of Najile for the partnership and the initiative to organize and train our children so that they are engaged and occupied during this long holiday on effects of FGM/C. This has strengthened and complemented the government effort as the content is in the school curriculum. The impact of the training will eventually reduce risky behaviours among young people. For parents, the government has given us time to prepare our children for those going to form one in time. We thank the government for such speedy efforts. Parents should take care of children during the 2 months holiday; just the way they were before they closed schools. Give them parental guidance during the holiday as they are under 18 years. Let’s take education seriously as the only way to a bright future.”
The Guest of Honour, a former student of the Najile Primary school and now a Doctor, Maria Konana applauded the move by her community to stop FGM/C and support their daughters through school. ‘I was born here in Najile and went to this school, Najile Primary and a beneficiary of a mother who stood by me and supported me through schooling. When I did my class 8, I was to join Moi Girls Isinya, a school in Kitengela within Kajiado County. My mother knowing very well that girls were not earmarked for schooling within our community, then determined that she should take me to a school that was competitive enough to challenge my intellect. She took me to a school in Kericho very far from my home. Girls there were not circumcised and I became part of them realizing that I could become a woman and excel in education without the cut like them. I excelled in education after studying abroad for 7 years with a degree in medicine. I came back home and got married to a maasai man even though I did not go through the cut. I urge you my community to let girls become women the way they were born just like me. I also take this opportunity to thank Amref Health Africa for this noble task of training our girls and empowering our community here. Currently, I am working with the county health department in Kajiado and I am there to support our girls not to undergo FGM/C, it is bad for our health and has long term complications. Please let us stop as a community, my people… I thank my mother for the decision she made against all odds and I know she is happy with the outcome. Parents, you have made good your decision to stop FGM/C on your girls, however support them through school and you will reap the benefits.”
Being a church based Alternative Rites of Passage, the community cultural elders opted to pray over the girls as opposed to performing cultural rituals to bless them. Adorned in Maa shukas given to them by their daughters, in a spectacular move they surrounded the girls, issued them with a book, a ruler and a pen signifying powers to read, read and read. In a rejoinder, they showered the girls with blessings through prayers. The ceremony was attended by about 600 community members.
In conclusion, an Alternative Rite of Passage is a confirmation by the community undertaking it that it has made a decision to stop FGM/C. The community of Najile has come out to confirm its stand with the girls against FGM/C and child marriage. None of the girls going through the Alternative Rite of Passage has been cut. Yes I Do Alliance will continue supporting the self-driven community of Najile to achieve its best as it lets the girls become women without the cut and live their potential. An annual award ceremony will be held for the 170 girls next year as a follow up.
All the Kenyan based organizations undertaking the Yes I Do Alliance- Kenya programme are supported by Southern Partners based in the Netherlands i.e. Amref Health Africa- Netherlands, PLAN International, Rutgers, Choice and KIT.
You can find out more about the work of >Amref Health Africa here.
Millicent Ondigo is Acting Manager, Yes I Do Alliance Kenya program at Amref Health Africa in Kenya and a Member of the Kenya Association of Professional Counsellors (KAPC).